Five Important Ideas To Teach Your Kids About TV


This article originally appeared in Issue# 52-53

Everyone tells you to talk with your kids about TV. Here's one father's thoughts about what to say.

You've probably heard that, as a modern-day parent, you should be watching TV with your kids and discussing what they see and hear. A recent statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics, for example, states "Parents should watch television with their children in order to help interpret what they see." In fact, just about everyone who gives advice about children and TV these days is saying, "Discuss television with your children!" If you're like me, however, this kind of advice only causes you to breathe in through clenched teeth.

Not that I disagree. I mean, it's a good idea to talk about all kinds of things with your children. Things like sex, drugs, schoolwork, curse words, discipline, elbows on the table, dating, rock music. But at least with most of these topics, I kind of know what to say. With television, I'm stumped.

Even when I have the time and energy to watch TV with them, I don't know what to look for. And what should I say when I see something that disturbs me? I don't need any more authorized spokespersons telling me I ought to do it. What I need are some specific suggestions, some examples, some simple ideas that will help me really finally do it— and do it without sounding like an unreasonable or out-of-touch parent

Making connections with things in everyday life is probably the easiest way to alter orenhance the messages of television without interfering with your children's favorite shows.

So I want to suggest some ways to put some method in our madness about television. The method I suggest is based on five basic principles of media literacy. These principles, I think, can help perplexed parents base their criticisms of TV on something besides their own likes and dislikes. For example, instead of saying, "I don't like that show because it's too violent," or "Can't you watch something educational;" the following five concepts can help you introduce some reasoned discourse into your everyday discussion of television. I think you'll find, as I have, that your children— and you— will quickly become savvy TV viewers.

    • You're Smarter than Your TV

      Let's face it, if we weren't smarter than our TVs— or at least different from the people in them—our lives would be dominated by gunfights, drug deals and quickly resolved living-room fights. Fortunately, we don't do everything or believe everything we see on TV, and neither do our children. Yes, there are probably ways in which TV affects us that we're not aware of, but in the end we still make our own decisions.

      What this means is that you and I determine (or at least influence) how television affects us and what we get from it. For example, as incongruous as it sounds, you could talk about homelessness while watching The Cosby Show. Consider the off-chance that a scruffy-looking woman enters the Huxtables' living room: "She looks like that homeless woman we saw downtown yesterday," you say.

      "Yeah," says your five-year-old, "except that lady we saw would never come into the Huxtables' house— she was too dirty."

      "You think Cosby gives money to the homeless?" you ask.

      "I don't know," says the five year-old.

      "We could write him and ask," you say. How on earth did you end up talking about the homeless while watching The Cosby Show? You connected something from your everyday life to something you saw on TV.

      Making connections with things in everyday life is probably the easiest way to alter or enhance the messages of television without interfering with your children's favorite shows. It's based on the concept that each of us have "filters" that affect our reception of messages. The idea, then, is to develop similar "filters" in our children that cause them to think of other things— "real life" things— when they see a McDonald's commercial or Bugs Bunny or "bedroom kissing" on TV.

      Making connections with things in everyday life is probably the easiest way to alter or enhance the messages of television without interfering with your children's favorite shows

      This can be especially effective when you begin pointing out interactions on television that parallel ideas from your children's reading or from books you've read to them. Unfortunately, television can't make these connections for us, but it can provide the opportunity for them. TV can be a way of expanding our world— so that our children want to do more reading, play more games, even do more creative school work. You can help make this happen by connecting events from everyday experience— no matter how off-the-wall— to the stories your children see on television. With a little experience, your children will learn that they can determine whether TV inspires them or bores them— that they really are smarter than the TV.

    • TV's World Is Not Real

      This point is so obvious it seems foolish. All the same, when we watch the news or a presidential debate or a documentary or a nature show, it's natural to assume that what we see and hear is real and true, especially when these shows are compared with sitcoms and musicals. But in all honesty, I don't reserve this assumption for just newslike shows. For example, do you remember that laundry detergent commercial where the man in the laundromat is making a mess of "separating his colors?" The outcome is so predictable: An attractive woman finally comes over to rescue the man, and they end up with a date.

      When I went to college, I remember going to the laundromat prepared to pretend I didn't know how to "separate my colors" in the hope that I'd meet a blonde bombshell who would "rescue" me. I really did this. It took me several laundromat trips to realize that this scenario was somebody's fantasy.

      Do you remember that laundry detergent commercial where the man in the laundromat is making a mess of "separating his colors?"

      Children, particularly girls and boys under seven, are especially vulnerable to the illusion that the events portrayed on television— like my detergent commercial— are real. According to developmental theory, it's not until about second grade that children develop the intellectual ability to tell the difference between what's real and what's imaginary. So the parents of young children need to be particularly aware of the "unreal" nature of television.

      For example, maybe one Saturday morning you're fixing breakfast while your six-year-old daughter watches cartoons. A Barbie commercial comes on. It's clever. Even you are enthralled for a moment. Then suddenly you exclaim "Aw, that's not real, they're trying to make you think that all that sand and ocean and sun come with Barbie. Did you fall for it?"

      "No," your daughter hesitates, with a quizzical look on her face. Then her face clears as she remembers that all the things Barbie does are really "just pretend."

      Or, pull out strange pieces of knowledge that you've collected over the years about how TV is made: "That's probably white glue in that bowl and not milk. They use glue on TV because it keeps the cereal from getting soggy under the hot lights."

      Or: "Have you noticed that the music always seems less happy (minor key) whenever the bad guy comes on?"

      Or: "How come Theo (The Cosby Show) seldom studies? Do you think he has as much homework as you?"

      But use these comments sparingly. No one likes to have their fun turned into a lesson. I find it works well to intersperse several comments in one show, then leave the subject alone for several shows or days afterwards. Your goal should be to make your children skeptical of what they see on TV so that they start to question on their own. Remember, television is never equal to real life.

    • TV Teaches Us that Some People Are More Important than Others

      I talk to my TV. I suppose some people would say this is definite proof that I'm finally off the deep end, but I like to look at it another way: I need to keep reminding myself not only that TV is not real, but that TV subtly tells me that some people are more important than others.

      So I tell the phosphorescent image of Ted Koppel: "If you interviewed Alice Walker (the African-American and feminist author of The Color Purple) about the causes of war...or poverty...or the budget'd get a different story."

      But it's not just that certain people's (like Alice Walker's) opinions are under-represented on TV. When African-Americans, women, Latinos, Asians or Native Americans — in fact, non-male, nonwhite groups in general — are seen on TV, they are usually crooks or kidnappers or secretaries or hatchet "men." On the whole, TV presents a generally male and white perspective on the world everyone else is less important and much more likely to get killed.

      Talking back to your TV is probably one of the best strategies for reminding yourself and your children of this questionable (but painfully accurate) picture of reality. When you see something that you think is biased in whatever direction, add your own two cents, especially if your kids are around. My dad used to do it. Whenever he was watching news clips about the war in Vietnam, he'd angrily interject his opinions on top of the reporter's commentary. This running dialogue is one of the primary things I remember about television as a child. I learned from Dad that if I want my children to know my values and beliefs, they need to hear them above what they hear on TV.

      But don't just talk back when you're watching the news. If the portrayal of women is one of your issues, and you're watching a commercial for women's clothing, you might say: "Only models really look like that. Do you know anybody who looks like her?"

    • TV Keeps Doing the Same Things Over and Over Again

      One of the great things about television is that it keeps finding new material, new ways to do old things, new ways to do new things, new topics and new people and new places and new this and new that and even new news. In fact, there's a lot of variety on television. So what do I mean when I say that television keeps doing the same things over and over again?

      Well, I mean that it keeps using laugh-tracks. And scary music. And romantic music. And candlelight. And close-ups. And chase scenes. And the women always wear makeup, even in bed. And the men look muscular. And news anchors always look at the camera. And they seldom say a wrong word. It's not the shows that are the same, it's the techniques, the conventions, the way they go about making the shows.

      Say you're watching Roseanne with your 10-year-old son, and you've decided that tonight you're going to count laugh-tracks. "Okay," you say to him as Roseanne starts, "I'm going to count laugh-tracks."

      "What? Why?" asks your son, obviously puzzled.

      "Oh, I've been reading this article about how TV shows are put to together and it suggested counting how many times the audience laughs."


      "Because I'm trying to learn about the way TV does things over and over."

      If your son doesn't volunteer to help right away, my bet is that if you miss one laugh track, he'll say "you missed one." Then you're off and running. You can count all kinds of things, you can even get more tricky and try to figure out, for example, if there's a way that models touch things in commercials. Women in magazine advertisements tend to touch objects daintily, whereas men grab them lustily. Does this happen in TV commercials also? And what is this teaching us about female and male roles?

      Not only is television always tying to grab the largest audience it can: more importantly, it's trying to grab the largest audience with the highest possible disposable income.

      One of my favorite activities is to give attention to the music used in TV shows. Before a show, you might say to your child, "I'm going to analyze the music in this show tonight, would you like to help?" I simply note with a pencil what happens in the show each time the music changes. After doing this two or three times, you and your children will begin to notice patterns in how music is used.

      Looking for these common television techniques is one of the more interesting and revealing ways to demystify TV for your children. With a little effort, you can schedule a trip to a local TV station where you and your children (or their class or Scout troop or church group) can ask all kinds of questions about how television is made. You might even be able to sit in on production of the local evening news. As a result your children will find it much harder to watch TV like couch potatoes. It's hard to watch in the same way when you start noticing makeup on sleeping women.

    • Somebody's Always Trying to Make Money With the TV

      The last principle is perhaps the most important. It also impacts my family most directly. I'd like to be able to control the Ninja Turtle/Strawberry Shortcake mania that infects my children and their friends. The question is: What part does television play in eliciting this craze?

      The place to begin is with the understanding that just about everything we see on TV is affected by the bottom line. Not only is television always trying to grab the largest audience it can: more importantly, it's trying to grab the largest audience with the highest possible disposable income. In a real sense, nothing else matters. Most everything we see on TV is concocted to attract those with money and to make those who don't have it, want it.

      Make this fact obvious to your children. You can begin by looking at the commercials in the different kinds of shows you're viewing. Say you're watching a basketball game and a Nike Air Jordan commercial comes on. You might say to your kids, "I like this commercial. How come we never see it when we're watching The Simpsons?" They'll probably say, "I don't know." But if you're lucky, one of them will say "Because most of the people who watch The Simpsons don't necessarily use Nike Air Jordans," and you'll be off and running (and jumping). At any rate, once you've explained it once or twice, they'll begin to catch on.

      Make sure your children understand that it doesn't really matter if they like a show— not unless millions of other viewers like it too.

      You can also try predicting the types of commercials that you expect to see on certain shows. On a sitcom about single mothers, for example, you might expect products that would appeal to women: personal hygiene products, underwear, household items. An action-adventure show, on the other hand, might feature beer commercials, razor blades or automobiles. After you make your predictions, notice how accurate you are and talk about the reasons why you were correct or incorrect. This is a great activity for younger children, because it helps them identify when commercials start and end, a basic skill for young viewers.

      Also, don't forget to point out that both networks and television stations make their money by selling commercials. This means that every show they put on the air has to attract viewers for them to be profitable. Make sure your children understand that it doesn't really matter if they like a particular show— not unless millions of other viewers like it too. And, if you ever notice a brand-name product in a movie, don't miss your chance to say "I wonder how much they paid to have Burt Reynolds use Tide in that scene?" 'Product placement,' as they call it, is a very lucrative business in Hollywood these days. It's a hidden form of advertising. Unless you know this you might assume the scriptwriter or set dresser picked these brands as appropriate for the character.

      It's important for your children to understand that just about everything we see on TV is probably influence in some way by the desire to make money. Assume that there are no pure motives. Even the news is influenced by commercial constraints, with a stiff competition for ratings at the top of the list. The acquisition of networks and television stations by worldwide conglomerates with their own complex profit making agendas has made the situation more problematic.

Now is the Time!

Although most of these five basic concepts can be assimilated in some form by any child old enough to turn a television dial, many adults never grasp them. All the more reason to start early teaching the concepts of media literacy to your children. Before long, they'll be spotting new examples before you do.

When you find your kids using these principles to analyze the programs you watch— and it may not be long then you'll know that they've learned the five principles of media literacy. And maybe you'll have a fighting chance at persuading them that they don't need the latest heavily advertised jeans, athletic shoes or Nintendo game cartridge.